Wedding & Portraiture
Create Your Own Outdoor Portrait Studio

Photo 1.
Photos © 1999, Michael Smith, All Rights Reserved

Portraits can be created outdoors in just about any environment. The key is to learn how to make just about any lighting situation work for you. Sometimes, when you choose your background you might find yourself photographing your subject in direct sunlight. At other times, you may be placing your subject in complete shade. It shouldn't matter to you. You should be able to adapt your lighting to whatever situation presents itself.

A recent portrait sitting that I made of two sisters pointed out to me the many ways in which I adapt to whatever lighting situation presents itself. Let's walk though the entire afternoon together, so that I can share with you what went through my mind and my lens as I was creating this series of portraits.

Photo 2.

We began the portrait session just outside of a building where the Quincenera girl changed into her gown. It was a bright, sunny day. I wanted to show the brilliance of the day, as well as to show the beautiful settings in which we were working.

My backgrounds of choice are usually ones that have a lot of depth and ones which have light falling on them. Photo 1 was an ideal spot. The walkway with the stone arch far in the background was a perfect setting for the young lady. The bright sky behind her was all I needed to make certain that the background would not go dark. You can see on the right side of the background why I don't like dark trees. You lose all the detail. They photograph almost completely black when there's no direct light falling on them.

Photo 3.

A bright sunny background to me always means setting my camera at 1/125 at f/16. That was a given. The backlighting created a beautiful separation light between the girl and the background. But her face and body were in total shadow. No problem. Since I knew that my exposure was f/16, I used a Quantum flash at full power to bring the light up on her face to f/16.

The light was placed camera right, shaping her body and lighting her face with studio style lighting. It was slightly above and to the side of her face, creating a modified loop lighting pattern at the base of her nose. It was as if I were in a regular studio environment. As a matter of fact, that's exactly what I did with my flash--re-create my ideal lighting pattern right there in the middle of the grounds at Vizcaya, Coral Gables, Florida.

Photo 4.

Using The Environment For Framing. With so many great trees and buildings surrounding us, it was a natural to use them as a composition aid to create even more depth (Photo 2). Profiles were a natural for this young lady. In the future I'd have a second flash close to the camera, or I'd use a reflector to help keep detail in the shadowed areas. The reflector could pick up the flash or daylight, whichever works best in a given situation.

Photograph From Dark To Light. One of my "studio tricks" is to photograph from a shaded area into a brightly lit space. That is, to keep my camera under a covered porch or a low hanging tree, and photograph out into the sunshine. Photo 3 was a perfect example of this. I was actually standing on the other side of this cavern-like archway when I photographed her. She was just 5 or 6' on the other side of the opening.

Photo 5.

The photograph was made with all natural light.
The camera was very carefully positioned to place the outline of her profile against a very plain background, so that there would be no distracting elements behind it. The exposure was for bright sunshine. There was enough ambient light to fill the shadows on the right side of her face without my needing to use a reflector or flash.

What If You're In A Completely Open Space? When I'm in a completely open space--no shade around--I simply try to position the subject's gaze, so that he/she is not looking directly into the sun. Then, because there are probably dark pockets of shadow in the eyes, I use a strong flash to open up those areas.

Photo 6.

For Photo 4 I was lucky enough to be able to have a shaded area behind me, so that when she was looking toward the camera her eyes would not be squinting. Since the same light is falling on the subject as on the background, there's no need to do anything but flash on or near the camera to open up the shadows. As you can see, it's still possible to create portrait style lighting with direct sunlight.

By the way, it was not by accident that the arch is beautifully framing architecture far in the background.

Sometimes, a particular spot cries out to you that it needs to be in a photograph. I was fortunate for Photo 5 that I could achieve a camera position that would keep some of the background in shade, while the brighter part could frame my subject. It was sort of like lighting the background in a studio portrait all over again--the brightest part of the background is where you want the viewer to focus attention. Can you see it working for me again in this picture?

Photo 7.

If you could find or even build the perfect outdoor lighting situation, what would you look for? Without a doubt it would be a covered gazebo. That's what I found when we walked through the grounds of Vizcaya. But to be even more specific, the gazebo had four or five windows of light all around it. To make it still better each of those openings were separated by a 3 or 4' enclosed wall. What this actually created were individual light sources that worked as main, side, and rear 45° lights. It couldn't have been nicer.

Photo 6 is a perfect indication of what I was able to do, simply by split lighting her face with one of the openings and allowing the rest of the light sources to completely wraparound her. The light was all available, ambient light as it came in from the areas surrounding them.

Photo 8.

I was on such a roll, I decided to push a little farther and pose the two sisters together--still with all available light through the gazebo's openings (Photo 7). Outside, the sun was blazing hot. Underneath the gazebo it was tranquil, quiet, and beautiful. The images reflected the atmosphere that was prevalent there.

How Can You Control The Light On An Entire Scene? The secret to that, my friends, is that you can't. What you can do, however, is to select your point of view, so that the light is sidelighting and/or backlighting the scene. Let's take a look at the scene, for instance, that greeted us just outside of the gazebo. Upon leaving the coolness of the protected inside area, I found this row of columns. Fortunately, I was able to select a viewpoint from which the columns and the girl were backlit (Photo 8).

Photo 9.

Exposing again for the bright sunlight of the entire scene, I turned up the power of my flash to come as close to the brilliance of the sun as possible. At the distance I was from my subject it was just about impossible to overpower the bright sunlight with a flash. I had the flash up to full power. The balance of the sunlight and flash was perfect.

Had I not selected an overall viewpoint like this for Photo 9, there wouldn't be anywhere near the magnificent depth that I was able to create in this scene. Even in this view of the gardens and buildings I was still able to find a viewpoint from which the area was partially backlit or sidelighted. In all of this grandeur I was still able to place my flash just out of view on the same level with the girl, keeping detail on the shadowed side of her face.

Photo 10.

Which Is More Important, The Light Or The Background?
How can you make a decision like that? Truthfully, they're both pretty much inseparable. If I had to make a choice, however, I'd probably say that the background is more important. The reason why? It's usually quite easy to change the lighting. You can manipulate that much more easily than the background.

The backgrounds can be changed, however, by under or overexposing them, putting them out of focus, changing the camera's viewpoint, changing lenses, cropping--I never before realized how much control we do have over our backgrounds.

Photo 11.

Special Effects? Why not? The silhouette in Photo 10 was achieved simply by exposing for bright sunlight and keeping her face in complete shadow. So simple. We even got color in the sky. Want just a little detail in her face? Use a reflector or weak flash, but keep the exposure the same. It's that simple.

How About After The Sun Has Gone Below The Horizon? What a gorgeous time of day to create portraits. The light is almost perfect. All you have to do at a time like this is to control the direction of the light and pose your subject accordingly. This final series of portraits was created almost after we thought that we had finished for the day. Yet, these images were some of the finest of the entire portrait session.

Photo 12.

The light was coming from the end of the wall, far right, creating a small highlight along the left side of their faces (Photo 11). There was no additional lighting that I used here. I was simply taking advantage of what I created by keeping the sisters close to the wall. There was no other direction that the light could come from, except the open area.

The simple dark doorway was all I needed to bring attention to the older sister. I saw the graphic design of the dark door against the contrasting light tones of my subject. Her younger sister in profile was added after I had photographed the first girl alone in the doorway (Photo 12).

Photo 13.

The Grand Finale Of The Day. I was debating as to whether or not we should wrap it up for the day. I knew that I had a great selection of portraits already and could probably go home with a feeling of great accomplishment. As I started to carry my equipment down the steps I turned and saw my young subject resting wearily on the rail. It was worth a few more pictures, I thought. The only problem was that the light was completely flat. No direction of light. "I can deal with that," I thought.

I positioned a reflector to catch a few of the last rays of light that were passing over top of the building and threw them back at her. She "popped." There was just enough light to pick her up and make her shine once again.

From the position where I could place the reflector, it created a weak split light on her face. That looked good enough to me. I set up my camera again and began once more (Photo 13). When she turned her face slightly to her right it created a broad light on her face. I loved it.

Photo 14.

My final thought for this series was to add her sister back into the picture (Photo 14). All I did was to lean the younger sister onto the arm of her big sister. Their expressions could not have been any nicer. I was in heaven. The light coming from behind beautifully highlighted the right side of the younger girl's face. The reflector lit them both with a strong enough light to make it appear as if they were both in some kind of spotlight. Just look at those eyes and those slight smiles. How could I resist? I couldn't. And you're witness to it all right here.

By now, you should have realized that the whole world is my studio. Indoors, outdoors--who knows where I'll be working next? One place is as exciting as the next. You know why? Because it's only the people who are important in a portrait, not the background. When you start to realize this, you, too, can take off and go to just about anywhere for your next portrait commission. You'll be as excited as I am, creating portraits in an indoor and an outdoor studio environment--a studio you can have anywhere.

Don't limit yourself. Make the whole world your studio, and share your love of life with everyone (like I'm doing).

There's a lot to learn. It's not always easy, but nobody said that being a portrait photographer is a rose garden. Well, maybe it is!